Most of the attention for the Green Bay Packers falls on their superstars, and rightfully so. Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams and Jaire Alexander have been the driving force behind Green Bay’s 13-3 season and No. 1 seed in the NFC.
But the Los Angeles Rams have their own stable of stars to match.
Aaron Donald will offer the hardest challenge of all-pro Corey Linsley‘s season thus far. Jalen Ramsey is a top-three cornerback facing off against Adams. In all likelihood, every stud in this game will notch some plays here and there. The real influence may come from the unheralded; the players who are plenty important, but are ultimately overshadowed by the headliners.
Here are four matchups that will tilt the balance of this contest:
Adams is the bottleneck through which the Packers offense flows. Only the Detroit Lions managed to limit Adams to three targets in Week 2, but that was more a product of a monster Aaron Jones game than any strategic unraveling of Matt LaFleur’s offense. In 12 other games, Adams was targeted at least 10 times. LaFleur and Rodgers will continue to force feed the ball to Adams, putting a ton of leverage on Ramsey. But the dam could break on the other side of the field.
Allen Lazard has been a revelation alongside Adams, finally taking some of the attention away from him. But if Ramsey is tasked with limiting Adams, Lazard will run into Darious Williams. Williams has enjoyed somewhat of a breakout year at cornerback, limiting production and scoring well-earned big plays. His most recent moment in the sun, a pick-six from which the Seattle Seahawks never recovered, was earned through meticulous tape study. If Williams can disrupt those quick YAC-based concepts, he can aid Ramsey in limiting Adams. Lazard will have to do his part to match that impact.
At 6’4″, Lazard’s biggest advantage will come on high-pointed throws against 5’10” Williams. In one on one situations, this advantage will give Rodgers room to miss high. That’s an incredibly useful tool for a quarterback like Rodgers to use, especially in the red zone. If Ramsey and Adams cancel each other out, Rodgers may need to utilize this in key situations. Lazard may have a difficult time getting separation, so Rodgers will have to give him a chance to utilize his lanky frame.
Corey Linsley vs. Michael Brockers
The trenches in this matchup have gotten plenty of attention. Donald always deserves some spotlight, and the loss of David Bakhtiari looms large. The All-Pro center Linsley will have plenty of impact on Donald’s game. While Donald tends to attack guards, most any double team will involve Linsley. But the defensive tackle opposite Donald, Michael Brockers, may find himself one-on-one with Linsley often.
The Rams had a problem with how they were asking Brockers to defend the run, which they’ve since cleaned up. In short, Brockers was trying to break through the line and disrupt the backfield. Now, Brandon Staley is asking him to flow with the line and plug a gap. He now has to try and beat Linsley to a certain spot on the field. What was an agility contest between Brockers and a running back becomes an agility contest between Brockers and the lineman assigned to blocking him.
Athletically, Linsley and Brockers are very similar. So this will likely come down to reaction off of the snap and technique. Both of these players are very good at what they’re asked to do, but if one can out-play the other, the ripple will extend to the rest of the team.
Krys Barnes vs. Cam Akers
Krys Barnes has had an underrated rookie season as a run-thumping inside linebacker. Kamal Martin deserves some credit too, but Barnes has played much more aggressively. I covered this in detail when recapping the Week 8 Vikings-Packers game. Simply put, Barnes is often tasked with guessing between multiple gaps. Dalvin Cook, a deceptive running back, was able to lure him to one gap before attacking the other. Cam Akers and Malcolm Brown could see an opening if they’re able to replicate that feat.
The advantage to this style of play makes Barnes very disruptive. It removes the opponent’s ability to decide who to attack and adds a point of entropy to each run. On running plays, each attempt at a block is a possible point of failure for the play. The way Barnes plays means that an insufficiently deceptive run from the running back is another point of failure. It wouldn’t be surprising to see analysts highlighting these rookies in a big Packers win, or a big Packers loss.
Earlier in the week, I suggested that the Packers should assign Jaire Alexander more man-to-man coverage responsibilities. That would be greatly helpful to players who are outmatched elsewhere in the secondary. As problematic as Jared Goff is as a quarterback, his pass-catching weapons are just as fearsome. It is unlikely that the Packers assign Alexander to shadow Robert Woods. They haven’t had Alexander shadow anyone in a wide zone scheme since Adam Thielen in Week 1. Robert Woods, Josh Reynolds and rookie Van Jefferson are all credible threats. The Rams will likely attack the slot just as much as they attack the outside, which will put a ton of pressure on slot cornerback Chandon Sullivan.
Sullivan’s worst games of 2020 have come against similar schemes to McVay’s (both Minnesota games and Tennessee, to be specific). Asking Sullivan to carry a player like Cooper Kupp across the formation could end in disaster. As good as Alexander, Kenny Clark and Adrian Amos are, it won’t matter if the Rams can pick on Sullivan. If the Rams want to, they can put three or four wide receivers on the field, force Sullivan into the formation, and throw at whomever he covers.
Kupp has generated 591 yards from the slot, good for fifth in the NFL. A large portion of that has come after the catch, which has been a weak spot for Sullivan as well. In addition to missing eight of his 41 tackle attempts, he has conceded 255 yards after the catch on the season. The Packers would do well to try and scheme plays away from Sullivan, and into the waiting teeth of Alexander.
The headlines will likely still follow Rodgers, Donald, Ramsey and Adams. That’s probably appropriate, but there are edges to be gained at the margins. If the Packers can win these four matchups, it will open up the game for their superstars to take over.